“Since I was a child, I understood that the school system wasn’t good for me.” During secondary school (between 11 and 18 years old), Edgar Vandenbogaerde changed program four times. He primarily believed that it was due to wrong orientation, so he decided to try other things, going from marketing to cinema’s studies, but it didn’t helped. If the subject interested him, he realizes that the school doesn’t. “I can’t concentrate when I’m sitting in front of a teacher who talks to me eight hours a day.”
INSPIRE THE EU’S MEMBERS
Edgar is far from being the only student in this situation. According to the European Commission, in 2016, there were four million young people (between 18 and 24 years old) dropping out of school in EU. To remedy this situation, the institution wanted to reform various areas related to education. In its “Europe 2020” strategy, the objective was to reduce school drop-out rate less than 10% in all Member States. In a thematic paper of the European Commission, the reasons are stated: “Young people who leave education and training early are doomed to suffer from a lack of skills and qualifications. They are more likely to experience unemployment, social exclusion and poverty.”
Fred Verboon is the director of the European School Heads Association (ESHA), a professional organization who reunites all the primary and secondary school principals around the EU. Between 2016 and 2018, they participate to the ESLplus project, created by the Erasmus Program. For two years, the project tried to reduce the early school leaving in all the member states. To achieve this, they contacted many professionals and organizations related to education, because, indeed, not all countries face the same drop-out problems. According to the table “Europe 2020 targets”, some countries are well above the 10% rate, among them Italy and Spain. “These may be a bad economic outlook and the opportunity to work at a young age, or the possibility the legal option to leave school at a young age,” explained Fred Verboon.
In 2017, Belgium had 9.5% of drop-out rate among young people between 18 and 24 years of age. The first goal of the ESLplus project was to create an online portal, with knowledge, advices and stories about drop-outs. It would allow teachers, parents and students to better understand the causes of drop-out and to be able to contact professionals. Completed in 2018, it is still difficult to see the results: “The success cannot be managed easily because we usually do not get feedback. However, we do have inspired a lot of our members to look seriously at the topic,” Fred said.
STUDENTS DISAPPEAR FROM THE SYSTEM
The European Union makes speeches and laws. However, it is the professionals who meet these students every day. Anne Verriest, who has been working for six years at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, is one of them. In her office, she receives young people free of charge to help them find the best program. In the waiting room, many papers about schools cover the wall… This is not about orientation tests, but about taking time to discuss with each student.
Anne Verriest is accompanied by her intern Dina Sharkawi, a young student. Here, both try to understand all the reasons that lead to dropping out. “From the school’s point of view, drop-out is when you stop school before the end of the year,” Anne explains. However, a distinction must be made between students leaving the school system and those who are reorienting themselves. And at university, it’s impossible to get precise numbers. “It’s difficult to have a database, because for us students who leave university, we don’t see them anymore.” Dina, who has read many articles on this subject, warns: “We have to be careful with the figures, there are no precise databases for the whole of Belgium”.
“I WANTED TO DO PSYCHOLOGY, SHE TOLD ME: DO MATH INSTEAD”
The reasons that drive young people to drop-out are many and varied. “Every profile is different,” says Anne. For some it is due to a lack of interest in school, bad adaptation to the university environment, family reasons or economic problems. However, Anne and Dina also want to deconstruct the clichés around the drop-out: “Not all students experience it badly. I have already met a student who had enrolled in university, but there was no intention of going there. He preferred to have a year to celebrate and experiment, to continue their studies afterward.”
For Anne, teachers or parents sometimes bring ideas that prevent young people from thinking about what they want to do later. “The general message is to study to find work”. The young woman knows this subject well, because she herself has suffered the consequences. “When I told one of my teachers I wanted to do psychology, she told me: do math instead.” For the parents, they are worried about their child’s future. “They think you have to go to school for a long time to get a good job. There is always a concern about not making money.” Although the guidance counsellor admits that statistics show that having a diploma makes it easier to find a job, some students go to school when they don’t want to. “It’s a question that rarely comes up: do you really want to go to university?”
BEING THERE AT THE RIGHT TIME
“What is needed is an unconditional welcome. The young people know that my door is always open for them.” Like Anne, Véronique Thibault works with young people on all the relational issues that bind them to school and their families. School mediator in a secondary school in Brussels, she takes care of pupils between 12 and 18 years old. Because, sometimes, the first steps of drop-out can happen long before the entry in the university.
According to Anne, there are two different types of drop-out student. The first will realize at the beginning of the year that something is not right, and with help they will be able to reorient themselves. But the second, who latter realize that they are not in the right place, will most of the time lose a study year. To avoid that, Anne and Véronique try, on their own, to be as present as possible for the students. The first step is to go in front of the class and do a presentation of the school system. However, not all these initiatives reach all students. “For the information to be memorize, it must answer a question. The moment we talk in front of the class, the student may not feel concerned.”
The challenge of these steps is also that the students themselves decide to discuss with the guidance counsellors. “Some parents have already made appointments for their children, but the students told me: I don’t care about the question.” For Anne, this means that this is not the right time to talk. And of course, these interviews are not mandatory. “If they don’t want to come and see us, that is their right,” Véronique insisted.
“I WAS LUCKY TO SAY STOP STUDYING”
Society reflects a false image of the school system. As is the case with Egdar, many young people persevere in higher education and not in professional studies, sometimes at the risk of drop-out. “If you go to professional school, it’s like you missed out on.” This sentence, Anne often hears it. In the mouths of the students, but also of the parents and the teachers. For her, society does not leave space for reflection on the meaning that young people give to their studies. “It takes courage to stop school,” she said.
Fred wants also to deconstruct these stereotypes. “I must emphasize that we do need skilled persons. Not necessarily highly educated persons.” He explains that some personal competences, as perseverance or entrepreneurship are important in a company.
For Edgar, one of the solutions to this problem would be to open orientation courses, to get to know each other better. An idea that is not new: it already exists in the USA. In Brussels, Anne and her colleague wanted to instore this principle, but with only two professionals, impossible to do something. Unlike Edgar, many people are unable to assert themselves and say that they do not like their studies. The student says he is lucky to have been supported by his parents, who helped him in his research. Now, Edgar experiments in his internship in an audio-visual company. However, he knows that not everyone has had the same opportunity as him. He would like to prove that the school system is not for everyone, but that despite everything it is possible to get by without major studies.